“Are we there yet?”
Sha had once seen the question posed in an old advertisement, swept to the back of the Database as though it were an old piece of trash. The question didn’t quite reflect her situation; in the ad, a young, bright, homemaking mother is seen turning back and reassuring her children, with a smile on her poppy red lips, that the road ahead wasn’t that much further. This blissful retro fantasy wasn’t her reality. Instead, fifteen-year-old Sha sat alone, atop a cold metal shipment box in the cargo hold, listening as the hum of the ship occupied otherwise dead air.
The girl felt like she hadn’t seen her parents in ages, but it had only been a day: they had enrolled her into the latest Cadet wave at the Academy to help clear up their busy schedules. Sha wasn’t built to be a politician like her older brother, Talon, and her parents’ reputation amongst their peers had been mussed quite a few times by Sha’s own extracurricular ambitions. After a particularly bad fist fight with the son of an esteemed Thelonian Duke, which cost the boy at least three of the twelve frontal fangs his species was so well known for, Sha’s parents decided that there was no other choice. Their wild little girl, who they simply could not fix, had to be sent away for her own good. They patted her head, smiled the way they always did for holopics on the news, and told her that she’d find a bright future in the military. Her ambition, her father reassured her, would find better use on the battlefield.
Sha pressed her forehead to the cold glass, looking out at the bright lights of hyperspace. It felt a lot like looking into the sun. Sha knew that the rapid, blinding light might ruin her eyes, but couldn’t find the energy to look away. As the lights, clouds and bursts of the tunnel swept past her, she thought about the sectors that she was passing through. When they deployed her, would she end up in one of the systems that she was gliding past at that moment? What were these people like, the citizens of systems that she’d never even heard of?
Sha shut her eyes. She had strayed away from her unit about an hour earlier, and no one had noticed yet. Maybe the leadership on board was lax, or perhaps even forgiving to the new recruits, but not one person she’d said hello to had even cared enough to check on her. As a soldier, Sha had no parents, no siblings, and (evidently) no friends. She had finished crying over it long before boarding, so the pain of loss was now just a dry, stinging feeling that would make its presence known whenever she found herself completely alone.
Two days earlier, her best friend helped her pack. It was the last time she had ever seen Lenia, and it was the shortest day of Sha’s life. Sha had become friends with the young aristocrat when her parents were still negotiating their way to the top of the Intergalactic People’s Council; when life was easier. Lenia wasn’t just a debutante, but also a courageous leader and an idealist. She was just waiting to explode onto the political stage, and into the hearts of galactic citizens everywhere, if her parents continued to negotiate her future well enough.
The girl with the galaxy in her eyes, they’d called her, regarding Lenia’s large black eyes filled with multicolored specks, reflecting the stars above her head. Long, silky, stark white hair completely contrasted those eyes, and her soft blue skin made her stand out above most of the girls that occupied the political space. Lenia was kind, graceful, compassionate, beautiful, and probably the single person who shed a tear over Sha’s departure. “They can’t do this to you, Sha! He started the whole thing!” Lenia began to cry when they shut Sha’s cold metal suit case, grasping at her friend’s new Academy jacket, “I’m going to stop them. I’m going to bring this to the Council, Sha, don’t you worry. You’ll be home before you know it.”
Sha knew that every fiber of Lenia’s being meant what she said as the other girl’s slender fingers balled into small, icy blue fists. Sha also knew that Lenia would not be able to achieve that, and, worn down by the responsibilities of being groomed to lead an entire planet, would eventually give up. It wasn’t something Sha blamed her friend for. Lenia wouldn’t find ears or antennae sympathetic enough to send Sha back home.
They spent the rest of their time laying out on the roof of the house, staring at the unending expanse of space, talking about things that stopped mattering the moment Sha stepped foot onto the ship that would carry her to the Galactic Capital. All that Sha was able to leave with Lenia were the memories that they’d shared, and her assignment number — NR-0079 — so that Lenia could get into contact with her. Sha bit back the pain in her throat. Would Lenia even try to contact her? When would Lenia grow tired of that and stop?
Sha’s practicality existed to the point of pessimism, but if there was anything she had hope for, this was it. From the moment Lenia walked out of her parents’ front door, all Sha had wished for was something from Lenia to tell her that all of this was okay. One day, Lenia would have so much power that she could just ask for Sha to join her personal guard. One day, hopefully, Lenia would pull through and help bring Sha home.
Pulling away from the window, Sha ran a hand through her freshly-trimmed hair, a short asymmetrical cut that completely contrasted the wild, thick, long hair that was ever so often tied into messy ponytails or tightly braided for political events. The cut had made her feel lighter, but empty. Sha’s fingers ran over the short spikes of the buzz underneath her cut, shutting her eyes.
“I guess this is it. This is how it’s going to be.” Another quote from a grainy, technicolor film of the past. Another memory that she grasped onto, even if she had no idea what that sort of life was like when it existed as the norm. If it weren’t for a sudden, wild jolt of movement that sent Sha flying across the cargo hold, she might have started crying.
“Strap in, recruits. Just a little turbulence,” the lazy mumble of their bored Captain barely made it through the speakers, and by the time it did, Sha was already buried underneath a pile of flight suits that had burst open when their container smashed against the wall next to her. She groaned. Shouldn’t have turned the gravity on. Shoving the suits off of her, Sha pulled herself to her feet, her legs still wobbling from the impact. She had probably been standing there, dumbfounded, for at least two minutes before the speaker rang out, this time with a frantic Commander at the mic.
“NR-0079 — get the fuck out of the cargo hold and return to your designated seating immediately, Cadet!” She could hear the Commander seething, but a sense of desperation shuddered in his voice. This was his job on the line. Staring at the activated cameras in the cargo hold, she raised her hands and shrugged, before heading out. Maybe she’d get kicked out for bad behavior, but she didn’t want to push her luck. Sha had no idea where they were, and an escape would be the most idiotic thing she could possibly do.
Once she was locked into her seat, the flight seemed like a blur. Only a few of the other students had made friends, and she’d noticed that there was an easy distinction between those recruits and the ones like her: they chose to be here.
Jumping out of hyperspace felt like nothing she’d experienced before. She had traveled with her parents, of course, and ships with hyperspace capabilities were the norm among their peers, but this was so very final. This was the first time that Sha emerged from hyperspace as someone who wasn’t the reckless daughter of disappointed politicians. She was NR-0079 now, and with the knowledge that her parents would prefer to see her tucked away within the ranks that never faced the audience of the galaxy, she knew that her life had begun anew. Sha, the girl whose long, wild hair could always be seen moments before a dish broke, was now a soldier with little more to differentiate herself from other cadets outside of her own terrible attitude.
Her registration went by in a blur of numbers, signed papers, protocol guidelines and a tour of the training grounds that she could barely remember. Grasping at her small suitcase, Sha made her way to her bunk, a small room within the training grounds hidden deep in the capital city. Sha hardly remembered how this city looked, but she knew that she’d be accustomed to it soon. In fact, she thought, she would soon grow accustomed to most of the galaxy. This would have been a comforting thought, but as Sha looked around at the recruits — some obviously as nervous and overwhelmed as her — she knew that she wasn’t going to see the galaxy in ways that archived advertisements from Old Earth had made humans aspire to. There was no sightseeing in war.
Sha slumped into her bunk, struggling with the lump in her throat. In less than a week, everything about her life had changed, and she hadn’t even reached the hard part yet. She was crying in her bunk, her back turned, and likely doing a wonderful job with her fellow cadets as far as first impressions went. So, when one of them tapped her on the shoulder, she practically jumped out of her bunk.
“Woah there!” Tall, blonde and completely human, the girl above her grinned, holding out a small standard issue communication device. “You forgot your comm when we were registering. Walked right past it on the line! Make sure you keep an eye on this in the future, okay?”
Sha, still overcoming the mixture of shock and stark loneliness that she’d been feeling, gingerly reached out and took the comm. “Thanks,” she said, cautiously eyeing her bunk mate. The blonde inclined her head toward their other two bunk mates.
“We’re heading to the mess hall to get in line for lunch early. First meal! You coming?”
Hesitant moments felt like years of awkward pressure to Sha. “I’ll — I’ll be right behind you.”
“I’m Etta,” the blonde said, swiftly ignoring Sha’s uneasiness. “I’ll grab some snacks for you just in case. Just find us and come sit. Maybe when you get there, you can give us your name too, yeah?” Etta smiled calmly at Sha’s speechlessness, before waving a hand and leaving. She sat in silence for a few moments. What just happened?
It wasn’t until the door slid shut that Sha noticed a small, blinking icon at the top of her comm. It was likely the mess hall signal, but Sha still fiddled with the comm, figuring out its basic functions quickly enough. Her hands and body were shaking, she noticed, and she let herself lay down on the thin mattress of her bunk, pressing the comm’s playback button.
“Sha? I hope I’m doing this right…”
She shot up so fas that her forehead practically slammed into one of the bars that held the bunk above hers. “Agh!” one hand shot to grasp at her forehead, but her free hand remained tightly grasped around the comm, letting the message play.
“I don’t know where you are, or when you might see this message… I’m not sure was the process is like, but I hope that you’re okay. I — you’re going to be okay there, Sha, and you won’t be there for long. And, when you’re home again soon, you can show me all of the things you’ve learned. This isn’t helping, is it? Gosh–”
You have no idea how much this is helping.
“Please be strong, Sha. Please keep your head up, and make lots of friends, and do what you do best. I have never met anyone as brave as you, and knowing that is the only thing that’s making this hurt less–”
Sha realized that she was crying again. Lenia’s holographic image flickered at the edges, the galaxy in her eyes reflecting against the light of her own communicator. Every shaky warm smile made the reality of Sha’s enrollment that much more real. This was happening.
But she wasn’t afraid anymore.
“I never liked the military, you know that… but knowing that you’re going to be up there, protecting me, makes everything feel okay. I’ve seen you take down bullies for people you don’t even know. Maybe you were made to be a protector, Sha. Maybe this is just the first step.”
Lenia paused. She was crying, too, her hands clasped together in front of her, as if she were quietly begging the universe to make this message more comforting for her friend.
“We’re going to be together again, I promise you. But until then, please don’t lose yourself. I miss you, Sha. You’re my hero.”
Lenia gave Sha a single, bright, hopeful smile, and even though Sha was sobbing, everything felt okay. Suddenly, the stinging pain of abandonment didn’t hurt as much. The rejection wasn’t as bad. She was just a number to many people, but to Lenia, she was Sha. If Lenia could accept Sha, then maybe everyone else would, too.
Sha raised her head to look at the door, remembering Etta’s offer, and for the first time since she’d stepped off of her home planet, Sha felt the strength return to her body. She stood up, straightened out, and headed for the door. She wasn’t going to walk out into the hall and instantly become a war hero, but for now, at least, she had enough fire in her to face this head-on. Sha tucked the communicator into her pocket, with the first saved message from Lenia recorded to its archives, and made for the mess hall.